Tag Archives: animals

Reflections from Cottage Country

Catherine’s off being a writer in a cabin in the woods. Me? I’m on holiday, so I volunteered to write this month’s post. (Wow. Automatic spellcheck is amazing—especially when you’re not a great typist.) We’ve been here a really long time. It’s rained almost every day, so it’s been perfect for napping.

Even inside, there’s lots to see and do. There are lots of windows, so I can see all kinds of birds. One day, the lilac bush was alive with them! And I’ve seen all kinds of animals outside too! Some of them are about my size, but they look very different. One of them lives under the cottage; I hear her scratching or grunting sometimes. Her whole body is covered with these long sharp-looking spines. Early one morning there was a family of five little animals about my size staring in at us. They sat up on their hind haunches with their front paws hanging down like little hands. There’s an animal that looks a bit like a small dog, but he has the most amazing tail!

And there are these huge animals—bigger than a human! I hear them snorting in the trees. Sometimes they come out though and they’re enormous! One of them had little antlers growing from his head! They’re not very brave though. The smallest movement or noise and they snort and stomp, then run back into the woods.

 

 

 

 

Catherine’s here all the time—well, nearly all the time. It’s great because whenever I get a bit peckish, I ask her for treats; sometimes she complies. When there’s sun, she lets me go outside. She makes me wear this stupid string thing, and won’t let me go under the cottage or into the woods. The other day, I took her around the whole cottage and then down the road. I decided to turn back before the cottage was out of sight; I didn’t want her to get lost.

I’m loving the quiet and the sweet air and the moss for stretching in and the grass for eating and so much to see and experience! And lots of cuddles when it’s cold. I hope the weather gets better so we can go outside more. Not sure when we’ll be home; I’m not the driver!

Signed The Mystery Cat in Black aka Baboo aka Fawkes Jenkins

©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved

Creative and Academic Writing: Animals of Different Stripes

I’m a writer and have been for decades. Over that time, I’ve written poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, a thesis, a dissertation, academic articles, book reviews, reports, case studies, etc. etc. I can switch gears as required, fulfilling the demands of each style and format, but I’m always aware that different types of writing impact me differently, have different working demands, and different after-tastes.

I started in poetry, and am closing in on finishing a new collection. For me, poetry was and always will be the purest, most visceral form of the drug. This is the writing that starts from pure inspiration; it’s a tickle in the back of my brain and I have to hold my breath and gently pull the thread for it to spill out on the page. This is writing that wakes me at three in the morning, that likes me to carry a notebook (the kind with pages, not electronic).  This is the form that brings me the biggest buzz, that unmasks me utterly, that leaves me feeling vulnerable and weak in the knees. But also fiercely able to stand by my words, and to take on the world. This is my tiger form (my Chinese year, by the way).

amazing-tiger-wallpaperIncreasingly, my fiction has a comic edge; I have one book nearly complete and another about a third written. I get in the flow and giddily write pages and pages, slowing only to research often really obscure facts, like what was the world population during Alexander the Great’s reign? This sort of minutiae fascinates me, but when I come up for air, when my critical brain kicks back in, it can seem somewhat ridiculous to be asking such questions and putting in hours to get answers. This is, it would seem, the way my mind works. I’m the curious sort. I get a huge kick from writing fiction, creating self-contained worlds, but somehow making them real by connecting them to reality. This is my young tapir form (kind of goofy, but cute).

baby-tapir

In creative non-fiction, I have one book in process; it’s about my Dad’s death. Whenever I try working on it, I end up weeping full-bodied sobs. I set it aside for years at a time, in the hope that one day I’ll be able to finish it. Because it’s so raw, it’s impossible for me to get any critical distance, to tell whether it’ll be as powerful for a reader as it is for me. At some point, I’ll have to show it to an editor or six who will be able to tell me. Regardless, it is a book I will need to resolve for my own sake. Striped, yes, but more somber and regal, more endangered, like an okapi; or horned, like a bongo or a kudu.okapi

bongokudu-bull1

 

 

 

 

The academic and business writing fall into a similar category in terms of process. This is just work. Purely rational. Although I get very excited about ideas, it’s still somehow seen as inappropriate to express this through academic writing. The odd time when inspiration strikes, when I get into the flow, and become more creative in my word use, some other academic comes along and tells me to knock it off. I am hopeful, that as I gain my professional stripes in the academic world, I’ll be able to get away with more. But this style of writing, using only intellectual process and not creative, is purely black and white. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I don’t get quite the same invigoration from it as I do from the creative work. It takes a lot of time and energy, and doesn’t give as much back. The satisfaction derived is purely intellectual, not emotional.

zebras

When I started my PhD, I felt very schizoid, with my creative side effectively amputated, focussing purely on the academic. As I’ve progressed, I’ve begun to see these two halves reunite. I’m learning how the creative and the intellectual can coalesce quite nicely, how I can write academically appeasing work that also fulfills the creative urge, how I can bring a creative spark to my academic writing. I also think that academic rigour brings a greater depth and richness to the creative work, as well as a necessary sense of discipline. Between the creative and academic work, I have a lot of exciting ideas on the go. Now I just have to create the time to write them all!

Catherine Jenkins 2016 all rights reserved

All images public domain

Meditation from a Hammock

This is my favourite place in the whole world. When I feel stressed, this is where I picture myself to relax and calm: lying in the hammock, gently rocking. It’s slung between two oaks, trees that I remember my older siblings jumping over, so these trees must be about my age. And as I lie resting, relaxing, I feel myself suspended between twin sisters, gently rocking me. I look up through their entwined branches, and realize that these trees’ roots must be similarly entwined, extending into the earth to similar depths though soil and past stone, that their branches extend into the air. And here am I, nestled in the hollow, between their branches and roots, caught in the air between. This is a safe place, a quiet and nurturing place. A place where I can relax, rest, read, a gentle smile on my lips. Where the day is timeless.

View from my Hammock

View from my Hammock

From here I can watch Loons and King Fishers, territorial Blue Herons quibbling over shoreline, and an Osprey with a clearly silhouetted fish caught in his talons. Nuthatches explore the ample branches and trunks seeking bugs; finding none, they move on.

Bluebottle casts a long shadow

Bluebottle casts a long shadow

Bluebottles sometimes alight on the canvas, soaking up the sun and casting long shadows. These trees are part of the Red Squirrel highway between the lakeshore trees and the trees in the woods. Sometimes, a Red Squirrel stops, puzzled by my presence, and stays a while looking down at me trying to figure me out.

When I was a kid, we didn’t have a hammock, so I’d go over the hill to my uncle’s cottage and lie in his. It had a yellow floral pattern with a fringe on the edge, and was strung between two trees near the lake. At some point in early adulthood, it occurred to me that I could have a hammock of my own. I purchased one for $8 at a local surplus store. It was a string affair, barely big enough for me, and required ample rope to suspend it between trees. Nothing fancy, but it worked.

A few years ago, a friend donated her canvas hammock to the cottage after an essential tree in her Toronto backyard collapsed quite spectacularly. This is the hammock I’m lying in now; it’s much nicer and bigger and firmer than my previous hammock. The yellow twine I used to tie up the old hammock has given way to tree-friendly webbed ties that offer support without damage. The new hammock is big enough to hold a whole day’s worth of reading, and has spurred me to master the fine art of sipping wine while suspended.

Reading and relaxing

Reading and relaxing

Catherine Jenkins 2015 all rights reserved

The Human “Management” of Non-Human Animals

I was as strong in biology in high school as I was in the arts. When, after some trial and error and debate, I finally chose a path, I pursued the arts. When I see the direction biology has gone in the ensuing decades, I’m grateful for the wisdom of my younger self.

When I was in school, the notion was that animals existed as part of a food chain—with humans at the apex (of course). The human ego likes to place us at the top. This is the rhetoric of “Man, the Custodian of Creation,” based on the religious idea that men (and women and everyone between—humans), were placed on Earth as caretakers of what God (or Gods or Goddesses or Mother Nature or Gaia) had created. Given our record, we are clearly at risk of being smote. Whether considering wild or domesticated species, the way we “manage” non-human animals is appalling.

In practice, humans remain at the apex, so that if a human animal is threatened by a non-human animal, even if the human animal is encroaching on the non-human animal’s turf, the non-human animal usually winds up dead. But as we begin to understand how species actually inhabit their territories, we’re realizing that the correlations between animals are much more complex than we’d previously imagined. While we’ve shifted our thinking away from a food chain and towards a food web, these webs are much more complex than we fully comprehend or appreciate. And yet we have the audacity to continue thinking that wild species are somehow ours to “manage.” Through a combination of recklessness and ego, we’re doing a lousy job.

Image by Mansur Gidfar from http://www.bewareofimages.com/

For instance, tigers have lost over 90% of their habitat to human encroachment. Wild tiger populations are down to about 3,200 individuals, and yet they continue to be killed by poachers and because of conflict with human interests. Three tiger subspecies have been hunted to extinction.

In the oceans, estimates for the number of sharks killed annually from overfishing, finning and bycatch range from 100-200 million. While humans generally fear sharks, this slaughter compares with only 72 attacks by sharks on humans in 2013, only ten of which resulted in death. The Pacific coast off California has seen a marked increase in the Humboldt squid population—an animal in whose waters it would be much more dangerous to intrude. While reasons for this population explosion are up for debate, some scientists think it may be due to shark overfishing, as sharks enjoy raw calamari. Sharks, like tigers, are apex predators; remove the sharks, and the natural balance and environment are shaken, sometimes in surprising ways.

But this isn’t just a pissing match between human and non-human predators. Elephants and rhinos are strict vegetarians, and yet they too are being poached at an alarming rate for their tusks and horns. In spite of sanctions and political pressure, demand continues to grow, along with the estimates of the numbers of animals killed. A shocking 30,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks. In South Africa alone, over 1,000 rhinos were poached in 2013. Consider too that these animals are slow to reach sexual maturity, have long gestation periods, and usually produce only one calf that requires maternal care for at least two or three years.

And these are just a few of the species being decimated by human greed and ignorance. In Canada, we’re acutely aware of the plight of polar bears due to loss of habitat from global warming. Right whale populations are now estimated at about 300-400 individuals worldwide, due to competition with industry and fishing, as well as climate change.

While some organizations, like the World Wildlife Fund and Wild Aid raise awareness through education, support ecotourism as more financially viable than poaching, and work to protect species at risk, other organizations created to caretake wildlife use culling to control populations, rather than supporting natural ecosystems to do this work. I wrote about some disturbing culls a few years ago.

This is the kind of “management” practise that recently led the Copenhagen Zoo to kill a giraffe named Marius, publically dissect him, then feed him to the lions. The zoo refused all alternative offers, and the zoo’s biologist, Stenbaek Bro, argued that Marius was cluttering up the gene pool and that the public dissection was educational. While he’s correct that in the medieval era public dissections were performed for this reason, there is no possible justification now. Anyone who wants to see a giraffe’s anatomy can simply go online or read a book to find the information, without killing another giraffe or traumatizing curious humans.

But it’s not just zoos killing animals. American Wildlife Services are reported to have “accidentally” killed in excess of 50,000 animals since 2000, including protected and rare species. Some organizations are bizarre hybrids that support conservation so their members have plenty of “game” for “sport.” For instance, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation aims, “to promote and protect sporting shooting and the well-being of the natural environment.” This is the kind of statement that assumes that we have a right to “manage” other species and that we actually understand all the complexities of interspecies interrelations.

And it’s not just wild animals at stake. Domesticated animals are non-human animals that human animals have tamed over many generations. We have altered their DNA and behaviour. Recent evidence shows that cats have been domesticated for over 9500 years and dogs have been our pets for 18,800 to 32,100 years. To my mind, a non-human animal that we have domesticated, tamed, is now our responsibility. And yet we don’t act very responsibly. Toronto has an estimate feral cat population of 100,000-200,000. Some of these cats started as someone’s pet, but the someone who adopted them, for whatever reason, didn’t have them spayed or neutered, or abandoned them when they moved. Cats reproduce at an alarming rate (even in the wild, given adequate habitat and hunting grounds), causing the feral population to spike. Organizations like Toronto Street Cat, a coalition of rescue organizations, work hard to neuter these animals, provide them with food and shelter, and find homes for adoptable kittens.

What happens when such volunteer measures aren’t taken? Prior to the 2008 Bejing Summer Olympics, thousands of stray cats were killed. Before the Euro 2012 Soccer Championship in the Ukraine, thousands of stray dogs were killed. And before and during this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, thousands of stray dogs, deemed “biological trash,” were killed. In many cases, these domesticated animals were dispatched in horrifying and inhumane ways. But with millions of stray cats and dogs euthanized in shelters each year, we can hardly boast of a superior record.

And this doesn’t even touch the millions of non-human animals killed each year in the name of “sport,” or “fashion,” or “science,” when better alternatives are often available. This doesn’t even touch the contentious issue of the billions of non-human animals raised and slaughtered for food for human animals each year.

Although human animals have enormous egos and a strong sense of entitlement, it is abundantly clear that we do not have the necessary knowledge to “manage” non-human animals successfully. And yet we like to pretend that we do. Part of the oil/tar sands rhetoric is that this destructive industry will put nature back just the way it was when they’re done. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to do that.  A recent short film, How Wolves Change Rivers, underscores how much we don’t understand about natural systems and ecological balances, how much we don’t understand or appreciate the complexity of the natural web of life. When we do such a lousy job of managing our own population, how are we possibly qualified to manage the populations and habitats of other animals?

 

© Catherine Jenkins 2014 all rights reserved

Spring 2008

With spring comes the celebration of new life… unless you’re unfortunate enough to be part of a species being “managed” by humans. This spring, the Toronto Zoo saw fit to euthenize two healthy, newborn reindeer, males, and thus undesirable additions to the herd. Some of the zookeepers were revolted enough to blow the whistle. In the wake of a public outcry, the zoo has instead found a new home for three more male reindeer at the Bowmanville Zoo.

The Greater Vancouver Zoo saw the murder of one of its spider monkeys, a fifteen-year resident. Intruders caved in his head while kidnapping his mate. The mate has yet to be recovered.

The Calgary Zoo was forced to close its stingray exhibit when forty of a school of forty-three died in just over twenty-four hours of unknown causes. Hard on the heels of this misfortune, the Toronto Zoo opened Stingray Bay, its own interactive stingray exhibit, having taken “extra precautions for the safety of the stingrays and our visitors,” including removing the rays’ barbs, their primary defense.

Not all atrocities occur in zoos though.

I’d never even seen a cormorant until I was well into my twenties, although apparently they were quite common up at our cottage prior to the 1960s. Thanks to pesticides and bad press, cormorants were at one time an endangered species. Now, there are a couple on the lake. They’re amazing looking birds: large, black, primeval and strong. After years of protection, the cormorant is slowly returning to its former range. But not without renewed challenges.

Point Pelee Park has proposed to diminish its cormorant population on Middle Island by ninety percent. That’s not a cull; it’s a holocaust. Why? Because the presence of such a large and successful population of cormorants is adversely impacting the “ecological integrity” of the island’s fauna. Also, anglers would have you think that cormorants deprive them of sport fish. The scientific evidence shows that cormorants have little impact on sport fish populations, preferring a diet of the introduced species that have been invading our waterways and have few natural predators. The ridiculous thing is that the cormorant is a natural part of this ecosystem, but humans think that the way in which this bird fits into its own environment needs correction.

The seal hunt debate raged again this spring, with heated and emotional arguments on both sides. It’s the largest slaughter of marine animals on the planet and, to my mind, a cruel international embarrassment. The only good news I heard about it this spring, and it’s tempered good news, is that due to weather conditions, Canadian sealers only killed about half their quota.

In international news, the South African government has decided to reintroduce an elephant cull. After decades of illegal ivory trade, the elephant population was threatened, leading to a trade ban in 1989 and the subsequent protection of the species. With such protections, the population has rebounded nicely. Elephants are big animals with big appetites; they travel in herds that decimate everything in their path. Elephants like to rearrange their habitats; why should humans be the only ones? Because of the protected success of this one species, fauna and other animal populations are being threatened in some areas, so there certainly is a problem. But given that elephants are extremely intelligent, feeling, family oriented animals, controlling the population through culls, by herding them together with helicopters and hiring sharpshooters to kill them, seems incredibly inhumane, not to mention scientifically dubious. And of course, even though the trade in ivory has been suspended, that doesn’t mean it can’t be reinstated if a generous amount of ivory suddenly becomes available.

Other than humans (who are far too good at rearranging their habitat to suit themselves, generally with little regard for the environmental impact), any species left to its own devices will find its natural population. Ecosystems include prey, predators, diseases and fluctuating resources that have evolved together naturally to keep things balanced. No healthy ecosystem stagnates; it’s continuously evolving. That’s the way natural populations remained balanced for thousands of years. And it’s only taken us about one-hundred-and-fifty years to completely screw things up.

As the world’s human population closes in on seven billion, as habitats for other animals continue to decline, as current energy sources diminish, as food and fresh water stores plummet, we’re going to have to face the fact that until we find a realistic way to colonized space, we are part of a closed ecosystem. Because we have the facility to manipulate our environment, we have grown to larger numbers than the planet would otherwise sustain. But sooner or later, something’s gotta give. Will we run out of ideas for how to successfully manipulate our environment? Will we pollute our food, water and air resources to the point where we poison ourselves? Will human strife cause increased war and violence? Will we start managing and culling our own?

In New Zealand, humans had tried and failed four times to rescue a beached pygmy sperm whale and her calf. Although they were able to push the pair back into the water, a sandbar blocking the way to the ocean was disorienting them, causing them to beach repeatedly. The humans were ready to give up, preparing to euthenize the whales, when a local-area dolphin pushed herself between the rescuers and the whales, then led her cetacean relatives off the beach, through a channel and back to open water. One marine biologist commented that dolphins have “a great capacity for altruistic activities.” So, what else are we missing in our rush to dispose of the animals competing for our space?

© Catherine Jenkins 2008